The British were ruthless. They killed everybody who stood up and challenged their rule from Rai Ahmad Nawaz Khan Kharal in 1857 to Bhagat Singh in 1931.
But they were great administrators, too, and governed India meticulously. They also cared for the people and places they ruled. Apart from a splendid network of railways, and colleges and hospitals, a lesser known legacy of the Raj is their efforts to understand and document the people, the land and cultures of India.
To acquaint themselves with an alien land, the new foreign administrators surveyed and documented the wide expanses from the north-west frontier to Bengal. In the process, they produced a whole genre of literature called ‘gazetteer’. These gazetteers, in many ways, were the first ever attempt to record the society, economy and culture of the Indian subcontinent. The only previous document is Abul Fazl’s Ain-I-Akbari, which records Akbar’s empire (1556 -1605).
Produced in the late 19th and early 20th century, the gazetteers are the best historical documents available to date for many districts. One is amazed by the details as minute as the number of villages of a particular clan in a district and exact distance between its towns contained in these documents. They contain the district’s detailed geographic aspects, agriculture, castes and their social standing, languages and religions. There has never been such a large-scale attempt to catalogue an area after the Raj.
Called the Bible of the viceroy’s administrators, the gazetteer and other scholarly works of the English bureaucrats remain a work of reference to date. Most people, however, are unaware that such things as gazetteers ever existed. And the question “Who reads your gazetteers, anyway?” still holds true.
While the British-era gazetteers and other historical literature such as the land settlement reports have been preserved and catalogued in the British Library, one is hard-pressed to find this literature in Pakistan. The Punjab Archives is famous for denying access to most of its literature for being a “top secret”.
Most of the district gazetteers of Punjab and what is now the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province have been reprinted by the Sang-e-Meel Publications in Pakistan. What is needed, however, is the promotion of these gazetteers.
Following India’s lead, the provincial or the federal governments should put the district gazetteers online and encourage their inclusion in the history discourse, because the pre-Partition history is also our history. The people and places discussed in these documents are our forefathers and the towns and villages we inhabit today.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 20th, 2014.
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